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Spies may never come home

Pakistani prisoner Sanaullah Ranjay is on life support in a Chandigarh hospital, with very slim chances of survival. He was randomly targeted by his prison inmates to revenge the killing of Sarabjit Singh in Lahore’s infamous Kot Lakhpat jail. No one knows if this is the end of the bloodletting or more will follow.


A Spy'slife: Sarabjit Singh, who died following an attack by inmates in a Pakistan prison, was cremated with state honours in his native village near Amritsar on May 3. PIC/AFP

If there is one thing certain about India-Pakistan actions, it is that nothing is beyond the realm of possibility.

From tank battles to proxy wars to covert action to nuclear threats, every violation of sovereignty is reciprocated. The only difference is that India does not have militias — both paid and trained — to unleash on Pakistan. Pakistan, in contrast, has an army that has spawned syndicates of ‘unholy warriors’ to operate in different corners of the globe. If these men, and now even women, die in the ‘line of duty’, no one mourns them because they are seen as servants of God, who performed ‘holy’ tasks of mass murders and shall be rewarded in heaven. It is impossible to reason and engage in civil discourse with an army that operates on such logic: the same army runs the country's intelligence service, makes its foreign policy and even picks the government of the day.

It is indeed telling that the much touted peace process between India and Pakistan is such a failure that the two governments cannot even talk of prisoner exchanges, let alone spy swaps. The practice of spy swaps is followed globally because it allows countries to avoid acknowledging their covert actions in an open trial. A spy swap is only possible before the apprehended spy is put in jail and charged according to that country’s laws.

During the Cold War shadowy espionage activities by the US and the USSR went on for four decades. Thousands of prisoners were exchanged by the two blocs in order to protect their intelligence sources and methods, though a few spies were prosecuted and convicted, and served their sentences.

Taking out your spies from enemy country is fraught with danger but not impossible. French journalist Michel Meyer in his book, Buying Freedom estimates that by 1976, West Germany had paid $300 million in cash and goods for repatriating about 11,000 prisoners from East Germany. In 2010, 10 Russian sleeper agents arrested in America were sent back to Moscow, while four men released from Russian prisons were taken from the transfer point in Vienna to London. The deal was the first public spy swap in more than 25 years between the US and Russia.

What really is the price of a spy? It is impossible to tell and it is up to the bargaining abilities of the country. A spy could be just a courier of information or could be an infiltrator sent to get into terror outfits. In 2011, Israel released 25 Egyptian prisoners in an exchange deal for a US-Israeli man accused of spying by Egypt and held in custody. The 25 prisoners had all been convicted of smuggling drugs or weapons or infiltrating Israel illegally. Israel has long given up on its stand of not doing deals with hijackers and hostage takers. It has several Track-2 teams working to release its covert operatives from hostile countries.

India must emulate Israel and work all channels to get its operatives released from Pakistan. Indian and Pakistani Track-2, 3 and 4 forums would do well to concentrate more on the humanitarian issues of spy swaps and prisoner exchanges. They can leave intractable issues like Siachen and Sir Creek for governments to negotiate.

We are pretty much on our own here. Countries rarely own up on their covert operatives. When they are sent out on assignments like the one that Sarabjit probably went on, they are told the score. Rarely do they ask their handlers, “What is going to happen to me?” Their question usually is “What will happen to my family if something happens to me?” They know that if they get caught, their chances of returning to India are bleak. The most that the country can do for them is to take care of their families. There are thousands of Indians who have worked selflessly and in shadows. There can be nothing more than a silent acknowledgement of their services. In a rare case like that of Sarabjit, they also get public acknowledgement and gratitude. 

Smita Prakash is Editor, News at Asian News International. You can follow her on twitter @smitaprakash

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